Howard Zinn (1922-2010)

The following is an excerpt from the transcript of a "Democracy Now!" tribute.

AMY GOODMAN: We were reporting from the Sundance Film Festival when news came of Howard Zinn’s death on Wednesday, January 29 of a heart attack at the age of 87. Howard Zinn’s classic work A Peoples History of the United States changed the way we look at history in America. It has sold over a million copies and was recently made into a television special called "The People Speak."

After he served as a bombardier in World War II back home, he gathered his medals and papers, put them in a folder and wrote on top: "Never again." Zinn went on to become a lifelong dissident and peace activist. In a 2005 interview, he talked about his time in the Air Force .

HOWARD ZINN: We thought bombing missions were over. The war was about to come to an end. This was in April of 1945 and, remember, the war ended in early May 1945. Everybody knew it was going to be over as our armies were past France into Germany. But there was a little pocket of German soldiers hanging around the little town of Royan on the coast of France, and the Air Force decided to bomb them—1,200 heavy bombers—and I was in one of them. We flew over this little town and dropped napalm—the first use of napalm in the European theater.

We don’t know how many people were killed or how many people were terribly burned as a result of what we did. But I did it like most soldiers do, unthinkingly, mechanically, thinking we’re on the right side, they’re on the wrong side, and, therefore, we can do whatever we want and it’s OK. Only afterward, when I was reading about Hiroshima from John Hersey and reading the stories of the survivors and what they went through, only then did I begin to think about the human effects of bombing. Only then did I begin to think about what it meant to human beings on the ground when bombs were dropped on them. As a bombardier, I was flying at 30,000 feet—couldn’t hear screams, couldn’t see blood.


In modern warfare, soldiers fire, they drop bombs, and they have no notion, really, of what is happening to the human beings that they’re firing on. Everything is done at a distance. This enables terrible atrocities to take place. Reflecting back on that bombing raid and thinking of Hiroshima and all the other raids on civilian cities and the killing of huge numbers of civilians in German and Japanese cities, the killing of 100,000 people in Tokyo in one night of fire-bombing, all of that made me realize wars—even so-called good wars against fascism like World War II—don’t solve any fundamental problems and they always poison the minds and souls of everybody on both sides. We’re seeing that now in Iraq, where the minds of our soldiers are being poisoned by being an occupying army in a land where they are not wanted. And the results are terrible.

GOODMAN: After returning from the war, Zinn attended New York University on the GI Bill. He then received his master’s and doctoral degrees in history from Columbia University. In the late 1950s, Zinn moved to Atlanta to teach at Spelman College, an all-black women’s school, where he became involved in the civil rights movement. While at Spelman, he served on the executive committee of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We’re joined now by one of his former students, the author and poet Alice Walker.

ALICE WALKER: My former teacher was one of the funniest people I have ever known and he was likely to say the most extraordinary things at the most amazing moments. For instance, in Atlanta once, we visited this very staid, at that time, white college, with all these very staid, upper-class white girls there and their teachers. I don’t know how they managed to invite him, but there we were. This was before any of the changes in Atlanta. We were still battling to get into restaurants. So Howard gets up and goes to the front of the room—a large room full of people—and he starts his talk by saying, "I stand to the left of Mao Zedong." It was such a moment, because people couldn’t imagine anyone in Atlanta saying something like that.

I think I felt he would live forever. And I feel such joy that I was lucky enough to know him. And he had such a wonderful impact on my life and on the lives of the students of Spelman and of millions of people. We’ve just been incredibly lucky to have him for all these years, 87. That’s such a long time. Not long enough. And I’m just so grateful.

GOODMAN: Zinn was thrown out of Spelman College for insubordination, although recently they gave him an honorary degree and he addressed the graduating class. Why was he thrown out?

WALKER: He was thrown out because he loved us and he showed that love by being with us. He loved his students. He didn’t see why we should be second-class citizens. He didn’t see why we shouldn’t be able to eat where we wanted to and sleep where we wanted to and be with the people we wanted to be with. And so, he was with us. He didn’t stay back, you know, in his tower there at the school. And so, he was a subversive in that situation. And they tried to control him, but of course you couldn’t control Howard. They even waited until he had left for summer vacation to fire him. They didn’t fire him face to face. He was, you know, a radical and a subversive on the campus, as far as they were concerned. Our freedom was just not that important to the administration. What they needed was for us not to rock the boat.

GOODMAN: After being forced out of Spelman, Zinn became a professor at Boston University. In 1967 he published Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. It was the first book on the war to call for immediate withdrawal, no conditions. A year later, he and Father Daniel Berrigan traveled to North Vietnam to receive the first three American prisoners of war released by the North Vietnamese. I want to turn to Noam Chomsky, who’s with us on the phone from Boston, to talk about this and what it meant.

NOAM CHOMSKY: That was a breakthrough at recognizing the humanity of the "official" enemy. Of course, the main enemy, the target of most of the U.S. heaviest bombing, was the people of South Vietnam, who were practically destroyed. In my view, the The Logic of Withdrawal was an important book. There was by then—I think this must have been 1967—a substantial antiwar movement, but it was keeping to palliatives, you know, stop doing these terrible things, do less, and so on. Howard really broke through. He was the first person to say loudly, publicly, very persuasively that this simply has to stop. We should get out, period, no conditions. We have no right to be there, it’s an act of aggression. Pull out.

There had been some studies of all sort of actions from below, but Howard raised it to an entirely new plane. In fact, the phrase of his that always rings in my mind is his reverence for and his detailed study of what he called "the countless small actions of unknown people" that lead to those great moments that enter the historical record, a record that you can’t begin to understand unless you look at those countless small actions. He not only wrote about them eloquently, but he participated in them. And he inspired others to participate in them. The antiwar movement was one case, civil rights movement before it, Central American wars in the 1980s, office worker strikes—just about any significant action for peace and justice, Howard was there. People saw him as a leader, but he was really a participant. His remarkable character made him a leader, even if he was just sitting waiting for the police to pull him away like everyone else.

GOODMAN: In 1971—you may have been there—Howard Zinn and Daniel Ellsberg were both beaten by police in Boston at a protest against the Vietnam War. One day before the beating, Zinn spoke at a large rally on Boston Common. Let’s listen to an excerpt from the documentary You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train:

ZINN: A lot of people are troubled by civil disobedience. As soon as you talk about committing civil disobedience, they get a little upset. That’s exactly the purpose of civil disobedience: to upset people, to trouble them, to disturb them. We who commit civil disobedience are disturbed, too, and we mean to disturb those who are in charge of the war. You agents of the FBI who are circulating in the crowd, hey, don’t you see that you’re violating the spirit of democracy by what you’re doing? Don’t you see that you’re behaving like the secret police of a totalitarian state? So let the spirit of disobedience spread to the war factories, to the battlefield, to the halls of Congress, to every town and city, until the killing stops, until we can hold up our heads again before the world. Our children deserve a world without war and we ought to try to give them that.

CHOMSKY: What happened at that protest is very similar to what Howard described about his bombing attacks. The police were actually sympathetic, the individual police. They were coming over to demonstrators, speaking supportively. In fact, when they were given the order to move forward, they were actually telling people—Howard and others—"Look, please move, because we don’t want to do this." But then, when the order came, they did it. It’s much like Howard said: when you’re in uniform, under arms, an automaton following orders, you do it.

We were personal friends, close personal friends for many years, over 40 years. So it’s, of course, a personal loss. It’s just a tragic loss to the people whose lives he touched. The one good thing is that he understood and recognized—especially in those last remarkable, vibrant years of his life—how much his incredible contributions were welcomed, admired, how much he was loved. He could look back on a very satisfying life of real unusual achievement.

GOODMAN: One of the last interviews we did with Howard was in May 2009. He talked about the fact that over the years people have asked him, "Do you think that your history, which is radically different than the usual histories of the U.S., is suitable for young people? Won’t it create disillusionment with our country? Is it right to be so critical of the government’s policies? Is it right to take down the traditional heroes of the nation, like Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt?" He made the following remarks.

ZINN: It’s true that people have asked that question again and again. Should we tell kids that Columbus, whom they have been told was a great hero, that Columbus mutilated Indians and kidnapped them and killed them in pursuit of gold? Should we tell people that Theodore Roosevelt, who is held up as one of our great presidents, was really a warmonger who loved military exploits and who congratulated an American general who committed a massacre in the Philippines? Should we tell young people that? And I think the answer is: we should be honest with young people, we should not deceive them. We should be honest about the history of our country. And we should be not only taking down the traditional heroes like Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, but we should be giving young people an alternate set of heroes.

Instead of Theodore Roosevelt, tell them about Mark Twain. Everybody learns about Mark Twain as the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but when we go to school, we don’t learn about Mark Twain as the vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League. We aren’t told that Mark Twain denounced Theodore Roosevelt for approving this massacre in the Philippines. We want to give young people ideal figures like Helen Keller. I remember learning about Helen Keller. Everybody learns about Helen Keller, a disabled person who overcame her handicaps and became famous. But young people don’t learn in school what we want them to learn when we do books like A Young People’s History of the United States—that Helen Keller was a socialist, a labor organizer. She refused to cross a picket line that was picketing a theater showing a play about her.

There’s Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses. They’re heroes of the civil rights movement. We have in this Young People’s History a young hero who was sitting on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to leave the front of the bus. That was before Rosa Parks, who is justifiably famous for refusing to leave her seat, and she got arrested and that was the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But this 15-year-old girl did it first. And so, we are trying to bring a lot of these obscure people into the forefront of our attention and inspire young people to say, "This is the way to live."

GOODMAN: Last night, after Howard died, we saw the New York Times put up the Associated Press obituary. Apparently, the Times has something like 1,200 obituaries already prepared for people. But they didn’t have one prepared for Howard Zinn. And this Associated Press obit quickly went to a quote from Arthur Schlesinger, the historian, who once said, "I know he [Howard Zinn] regards me as a dangerous reactionary. And I don’t take him very seriously. He’s a polemicist, not a historian."

NAOMI KLEIN: I don’t think that would have bothered Howard at all. He never was surprised when power protected itself. And he really was a people’s historian, so he didn’t look to the elites for validation. I’m just so happy that the incredible team from People Speak gave Howard this incredible gift at the end of his life. I was at Lincoln Center at the premiere and was there when just the mention of Howard’s name led thousands of people to leap to their feet and give him the standing ovation that he deserved. So I don’t think he needed the New York Times. I don’t think he needed the official historians. He was everybody’s favorite teacher, the teacher that changed your life, and he was that for millions and millions of people. So, you know, what’s happened. We just lost our favorite teacher.

But the thing about Howard is that the history he taught was not just about losing the official illusions about nationalism, about heroic figures. It was about telling people to believe in themselves and their power to change the world. Like any wonderful teacher, he left all of these lessons behind. I think we should all resolve to be a little bit more like Howard today.

GOODMAN: Let’s end with one of Zinn’s last speeches, delivered at Boston University in November 2009.

ZINN: No matter what we’re told, no matter what tyrant exists, what border has been crossed, what aggression has taken place, it’s not that we’re going to be passive in the face of tyranny or aggression. No. But we’ll find ways other than war to deal with whatever problems we have, because war is inevitably—inevitably—the indiscriminate massive killing of huge numbers of people. And children are a good part of those people. Every war is a war against children.

So it’s not just getting rid of Saddam Hussein, if we think about it. Well, we got rid of Saddam Hussein. In the course of it, we killed huge numbers of people who had been victims of Saddam Hussein. When you fight a war against a tyrant, who do you kill? You kill the victims of the tyrant. Anyway, all this—all this was simply to make us think again about war and to think, you know, we’re at war now, right? In Iraq, in Afghanistan, and sort of in Pakistan, since we’re sending rockets over there and killing innocent people in Pakistan. And so, we should not accept that.

We should look for a peace movement to join. It will look small at first, and pitiful and helpless, but that’s how movements start. That’s how the movement against the Vietnam War started. It started with handfuls of people who thought they were helpless, thought they were powerless. But this power of the people on top depends on the obedience of the people below. When people stop obeying, they have no power. When workers go on strike, huge corporations lose their power. When consumers boycott, huge business establishments have to give in. When soldiers refuse to fight—as so many soldiers did in Vietnam, so many deserters, so many fraggings, acts of violence by enlisted men against officers in Vietnam, B-52 pilots refusing to fly bombing missions anymore—war can’t go on. When enough soldiers refuse, the government has to decide we can’t continue. So, yes, people have the power. If they begin to organize, if they protest, if they create a strong enough movement, they can change things. That’s all I want to say. Thank you.


LYDIA SARGENT: I went to my first anti-war demonstration in October 1969 on Boston Common where I heard for the first time—along with 250,000 others—this person called Howard Zinn speak about the Vietnam War and the need to oppose it. He was passionate and unexpectedly entertaining, even though talking about death and destruction. Zinn’s speech was one of the things that influenced my decision to become active.

A year later, I was on the staff of the Boston People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice organizing my first mass civil disobedience sit-in at the JFK federal building in Boston. We had assigned the main doors to various groups—pacifists at one door, students from Boston University or MIT or Harvard at another, young militants at another, etc. All told, there were 5,000 around that building. As one of the organizers, I was responsible for those at the pacifist door, which was on the side of the building near the front.

I was surprised to see Howard Zinn, who I thought was a speaker—an intellectual of sorts—actually participating in civil disobedience at my door, with others, many of them older. Because he was so tall, when the police charged periodically throughout the eight hour sit-in, Zinn was the one getting hit the most, bloodied the most.

As an organizer, I had been in early meetings with the police, so I knew who the chief was. I went, naively, but sweetly, to ask him to stop hitting the “older” people at my door. Surprisingly, the police seemed to ease up somewhat and let us march “victorious” to Boston Common at 3:00 PM. I like to think that I helped Howard preserve his scalp to protest another day.

In May 2009, I was videotaping a conference in Athens organized by anti-authoritarian activists in the Greek Uprising of 2008. Howard was there, as well, speaking about civil disobedience and democracy. As it turned out, 40 years later, I heard Howard—still passionate, still entertaining—for the last time.